Piper reports on courthouse annex financing

Robert Smith
Pawhuska Journal-Capital

District 1 Commissioner Everett Piper on Feb. 21 gave a report regarding financing for the Osage County courthouse annex project, and expressed the view that county government will have to take a practical approach as it moves forward on the building initiative. Piper was otherwise careful to clarify that his report was not a call to action.

As he began the financial report, Piper characterized it as a “point of information.” He repeated himself at the end of the presentation, saying: “This is a point of information. I’m not arguing for or against anything.”

The Board of County Commissioners in late January designated Piper to serve as its point person regarding the courthouse annex project. His board colleagues took into account his past employment as a university president and the responsibility he had in that capacity for the oversight of construction projects.

During a brief discussion following his presentation Feb. 21, Piper said that the current cost of commercial building space is about $500 per square foot and he thinks the county will have the challenge of trying to build within what is realistically possible.

Piper’s presentation focused on more than $10 million of spending approved by the previous Board of County Commissioners (two of the three board seats changed hands at the beginning of 2023) for expenditure on a county courthouse annex. He reviewed specific numbers regarding the bond issue that was approved, and the bond-anticipation loan that the county took out while waiting for the bond funds to become available.

The bottom line of Piper’s financial review was that the county is likely to have slightly more than $10 million (out of $10.5 million) left for remainder of the annex project, which has not emerged from the design phase..

The previous board tried to set up a process for doing two things regarding county administrative facilities – making repairs and renovations to the existing courthouse, and building an annex to provide additional space. In addition to the bond issue for annex funding, that board voted to earmark $4 million of federal COVID-19 relief funds.

Piper indicated Feb. 21 that he did not envision any of that $4-million earmark being spent on the annex. He made reference to what he described as a serious need for structural evaluation of the existing courthouse.

Mike Tolson, who previously served on a select committee that evaluated the county’s administrative office and court facility needs, made comments during which he assured Piper that he and other members of that earlier committee had not been advocating for a “Taj Mahal.”

Bond lawyer remains optimistic about annex

Jeff Raley, the bond lawyer who helped the previous Board of County Commissioners set up financing for the proposed courthouse annex, told the Journal-Capital that he remains optimistic that $10 million will be sufficient for Osage County government to successfully build a new facility.

Raley was not present for Piper’s presentation, but spoke with the newspaper by telephone regarding his current view of the project.

The Board of County Commissioners originally approved up to $10.75 million of bond funding. Raley explained that project financial consultant Randy Nelson reached the conclusion that $10.5 million would be a good number for the bond issue, based on considerations such as the commissioners not wanting to devote more than half of the county’s Use Tax revenues to debt service, as well as overall conditions in the financial markets.

“I think we’re pretty close,” Raley said regarding the sufficiency of the funding. ”I’m kind of a glass-half-full guy.”

He added that he thinks the construction would provide a boost to Pawhuska’s economy.

“I think it’s going to be a great thing for the city,” Raley said.

Appointment of a new owner’s representative

Another important piece of business Feb. 21 regarding the annex project was the county board’s consideration of the hiring of a new owner’s representative. The county’s contract with the Tulsa-based owner’s representative firm D2C had expired.

Following a discussion among themselves, the commissioners voted, 3-0, to move ahead with the retention of Dalton Higgins as the new owner’s representative. The board’s agenda for its Feb. 27 meeting contained an item calling for the commissioners to consider approving and signing an owner’s representative agreement with Higgins.

Higgins has a prior connection with Piper, who said Feb. 21 that his experience with Higgins has been that Higgins finishes projects under budget.

Higgins is listed on the website of Oklahoma Wesleyan University (the school where Piper served as president) as director of facilities. He is also listed as the owner of a firm called Higgins Construction Management.

Piper said Feb. 21 that D2C had decided not to continue with the Osage County project. He said that Higgins proposed to charge the county $11,000 per month over 20 months.

Mike Owen, a spokesman for D2C, was not present for Piper’s presentation, but said via telephone that he disagreed with the commissioner’s comment about the company deciding not to continue with the project. Owen said that he has been involved for more than 10 years with efforts to solve Osage County’s facilities problem, and he desired to continue.

Owen told the Journal-Capital that more than one email was sent to the county, seeking to place the possible extension of D2C’s contract on a board agenda, and the effort “fell on deaf ears.”

Piper, when asked about Owen’s comments, said that he checked his records and found an email dated Jan. 12 that had been sent to about a dozen people and that addressed several subjects. Piper said by way of clarification, however, that since his designation Jan. 23 as the county board’s point person on the annex project he had not received any communication regarding the possible extension of the D2C contract.

Prior conversations between Higgins and commissioners

During the county board’s Feb. 21 conversation about possibly hiring Dalton Higgins to be the owner’s representative for the county annex project, both District 3 Commissioner Charlie Cartwright and District 2 Commissioner Steve Talburt made clear they had talked individually with Higgins in detail prior to his name being placed in consideration.

The Journal-Capital asked Cartwright and Talburt how they viewed those prior conversations, and whether they considered them to essentially be interviews for the owner’s representative position. Cartwright said he met in person with Higgins and talked with him about the county annex project, but did not consider it an interview for a position.

“I think he’s got a little different take on the project as far as staying within budget,” Cartwright said of Higgins.

Talburt also said he did not view his personal meeting with Higgins as part of a selection process for the owner’s representative position.

The Journal-Capital asked Piper the following question via email in regard to the consideration of Higgins for the owner's representative post: "Was there any intent, that you are aware of, on the part of the board to effectively vet Mr. Higgins without having a detailed public question-and-answer session with him?"

Piper's answer was as follows: "No. There was no intent to vet any candidate without public input, in fact last week’s BOCC provided that opportunity."